Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." The Maryland General Assembly has taken advantage of this "happy accident" to pass a National Popular Vote bill and is expected to pass a Living Wage bill today as well.
Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin told me, "We passed the National Popular Vote bill in the General Assembly by mobilizing the essential democratic principles: the person with the most votes for president should win the office and every citizen's vote should count equally regardless of geography or time zone…. And with the Living Wage bill we have said that the state government should not be a neutral umpire in the economy but an active instrument for lifting people out of grinding poverty into at least the modestly secure working class. The gap between the minimum wage and the actual living wage is an index of shame, which we are about to close in Maryland."
The National Popular Vote bill calls for awarding Maryland's 10 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state vote. It only takes effect when states representing a majority of votes in the Electoral College agree to join a binding National Popular Vote compact. The movement is being led by the National Popular Vote campaign and it has over 300 sponsoring legislators in 47 states. Other organizations involved in the effort include: FairVote, Progressive States Network, Asian American Action Fund, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, National Latino Congreso, Common Cause, and such former Members of Congress as Republicans Tom Campbell and Jake Garn, independent John Anderson, and Democrat Birch Bayh.
According to Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell of FairVote, "Under the Constitution, states have exclusive power – indeed have responsibility – to award their electors to reflect the interests of their people." Like Maryland, Hawaii also passed its National Popular Vote bill and so have single chambers in Arkansas and Colorado. Last year, California passed its own version but it was vetoed by The Terminator. Richie reports that establishing a national popular vote is supported by 70 percent of the public according to polls. "This should be no surprise," Richie and O'Donnell write. "The current system makes most Americans irrelevant in electing their most powerful elected office."
"[Maryland], like the two-thirds of all states consigned to the safe red or blue column, has been reduced to ‘spectator' status in presidential elections," Raskin said. "… I believe that Maryland and now Hawaii can kick off an insurrection of the spectator states to demand a truly national presidential campaign instead of this debased division and polarization of red and blue states, a process which depresses turnout and participation."
Richie points out that in 2004, voter turnout was 8 percent higher in battleground states than non-battlegrounds and "fully 17 percent higher among young adults – a division only to grow in future elections with presidential campaign activity limited to battlegrounds…." And Richie and O'Donnell note, "The presidential campaigns and their allies spent more money on ads in Florida in the final month of the campaign than their combined spending in 46 other states." Raskin adds, "In the last two [presidential] elections, 99 percent of campaign dollars and candidate visits were spent in 16 battleground states and two-thirds of the money and appearances in just five key ones like Ohio and Florida."
"By strengthening the voting power of all Americans and treating all voters equally," Richie says, "the National Popular Vote plan is based on two of the key pillars of lasting reform: equality and universality."
Maryland's Living Wage Bill will have a lasting impact as well. "It's going to lift tens of thousands of Marylanders out of poverty," Delegate Tom Hucker told the Washington Post. "It makes Maryland a leader in ensuring that our tax dollars are helping build the middle class rather than perpetuating poverty."
And it's not just Democrats who are doing the work of small-d democrats. Florida's Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, has fulfilled his campaign promise to work towards restoring voting rights for convicted felons in his state despite the fact that it will add "tens of thousands of Democratic voters to the rolls -- possibly pushing a House seat or two into the blue column" and helping any Democratic presidential nominee. (Maryland's General Assembly has also acted to secure voting rights for more people with felony convictions and Governor Martin O'Malley is leaning towards signing the bill. Richie says that O'Malley – the only challenger to defeat an incumbent governor in last year's elections – has been instrumental in spurring progressive change by promising to sign such legislation as this.)
These actions by the Maryland General Assembly and the action of a Republican Governor serve as reminders that what Nation article John Nichols wrote in a 2003 still holds true: "… some of the most important fights – for affordable healthcare, education, environmental protection and clean politics – are taking place beyond the Beltway. Often there is far more space for debate on these issues, and more opportunities for victory, in statehouses… Thus, while it is essential to battle Bush and his minions in Washington, it is equally essential to understand that the road to renewal may well run through the states."